Budget bill for Interior is positive step forward for public lands

Jan 14, 2014
The FY14 appropriations bill released Monday night is a welcome step towards restoring funding for our public lands, moving away from the ‘budgeting by crisis’ cycle, and returning Washington to regular order.

The bill divides approximately $30 billion between agencies like the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which collectively manage 609 million federal acres across the United States; the Interior budget represents roughly 1% of total federal spending. While providing much needed relief from some of the indiscriminate sequester cuts, more remains to be done to adequately address the broad array of public lands needs within the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture—agencies which oversee management of parks, monuments, wilderness, refuges, rivers, historic sites, and wildlife habitat beloved by the American people.

Public lands are also an important source of energy that powers the nation. In order for both clean and traditional energy to be developed responsibly and in places of low impact, key initiatives like DOI’s New Energy Frontier program need appropriate and adequate funding. This bill is a good step towards those ends.

“We commend Congress for working collaboratively to restore some much-needed funding for conservation,” says Paul Spitler, Director of Wilderness Campaigns with The Wilderness Society, “but at the end of the day, the figures are still inadequate to ensure our public lands have the staffing, resources, and scientific research they need in a world of increasing wildfires, wildlife loss, additional recreational pressures, and a changing climate. It’s time for Congress to prioritize stewardship of our public lands every fiscal year. The American people ask for it again and again.” 

The FY14 budget includes $306 million—level from last year’s budget—for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which authorizes Congress to reinvest royalty money from off-shore oil and gas leasing for land and water conservation purposes. With this budget legislation, Congress has wisely recognized the strong connection between robust LWCF funding and the economic health of communities in all 50 states.  Outdoor recreation activities – the very activities supported by the parks and other public lands that LWCF conserves – contribute 9.4 million American jobs, $107 billion in federal, state and local tax revenues, and $1.06 trillion in total economic activity. Both the LWCF Act and the Wilderness Act celebrate their 50th anniversary of passage this year.

The USFS’s Legacy Roads and Trails Program saw a $10 million decrease over FY12 funding levels, while the BLM’s National Conservation Lands remained roughly the same. These agency programs provide much needed revenue to field teams on the ground, who carry out basic maintenance of infrastructure, monitoring of visitor safety, and upkeep of historic and cultural sites. Chronic underfunding is causing significant delays in mandatory recreational and conservation planning and hampers field monitoring and patrols in places where visitation impacts wildlife, vegetation, and archaeological sites.

Funding shortages for public lands across the nation continue to impact both land managers and visitors alike:  

  • U.S. Forest Service field offices nationwide are short-staffed, underfunded, and unable to complete basic on-the-ground management. On Arizona’s Tonto National Forest just outside Phoenix, there are no remaining full time wilderness rangers to monitor environmental conditions and make backcountry visitor contacts on more than 800,000 acres of wilderness.  For many recreation managers, wilderness management and backcountry patrols have become merely a collateral duty.
  • At the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument in Montana, overseen by the BLM, lack of sufficient funding has resulted in reduced staffing and fewer river patrols along 149 miles of water, which poses a threat to visitor safety, cleanliness of the river itself, and the condition of campsites along the waterway.
  • Without adequate funds from the USFS Legacy Roads and Trails Program, the Siuslaw National Forest in Oregon cannot improve Eckman Road—a key route for community access to the forest along which deteriorating road conditions have caused sediment buildup in coho, steelhead, and cutthroat trout habitat.

In November, a national survey conducted by Hart Research Associates on behalf of the Center for American Progress  showed 74% of those polled want no further cuts to national parks and public lands. Another 2013 bipartisan survey of voters in the West found that 91 percent agree that public lands are essential to their state’s economy. In terms of long-term growth and economic prosperity, rural western counties with more than 30 percent of their land under federal protection increased jobs at a rate four times faster than rural counties with no federally protected lands.

“In recent years, repeated cuts to conservation programs and the agencies and staff that sustain them have failed to reflect the overwhelming public support that exists for our national forests, parks, and wilderness lands,” says TWS’s Spitler. “Now more than ever, as we enter the 50th anniversary year of the Wilderness Act, we are mindful that these places give back to us in immeasurable ways—clean drinking water for thousands of communities, recreational opportunities, refuge for wildlife—all of the things that drive local economies in the West while simultaneously improving our quality of life.  It’s time Congress honors what our public lands give us each and every day and adequately fund the programs that ensure these lands and waters continue to sustain us.”

Final passage of the FY14 budget bill is expected the end of this week, possibly as late as Saturday.

 

Contact:

Paul Spitler, Director of Wilderness Campaigns, 202-360-1912, paul_spitler@tws.org

Cameron Witten, Government Relations Associate, 202-429-8458, cameron_witten@tws.org